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Holding water: The Cambria Community Services District is moving toward construction of an Emergency Water Supply 

Cambria may be facing a severe water shortage, but there’s no shortage of public ire as the community grapples with strict conservation measures and creates contingency plans to cope with a worsening drought.

Officials with the Cambria Community Services District (CCSD) may be used to their unpopularity by now. The district has held a series of special meetings—convening two, three, or occasionally four times a month—to take necessary action to address the dire water shortage. Earlier in the year, projections estimated Cambria would run out of water by some time this fall if drastic conservation measures weren’t put in place. Now, with demand curbed and stabilized, the CCSD is looking toward building a treatment plant for an Emergency Water Supply in case California sees another winter without rain.

click to enlarge BREAKING GROUND:  An overhead photo of the Cambria Community Services District’s Emergency Water Supply Project. The project will treat  brackish and treated wastewater in a process that will replenish one of Cambria’s wells. The site’s proximity to creeks and two lagoons—and the projected environmental impact—has been the subject of much debate. - IMAGE COURTESY OF CDM SMITH
  • BREAKING GROUND: An overhead photo of the Cambria Community Services District’s Emergency Water Supply Project. The project will treat brackish and treated wastewater in a process that will replenish one of Cambria’s wells. The site’s proximity to creeks and two lagoons—and the projected environmental impact—has been the subject of much debate.

In doing so, the particulars have become contentious, and the vocal citizenry doesn’t much care for the direction things are headed.

The CCSD nevertheless continues to lay track as it goes, even though there may be regulatory and legal questions about the ground toward which it’s heading.

Over the course of the summer, the CCSD abandoned original plans to rent a temporary mobile unit to treat brackish water (a mix of fresh and salt water), instead opting to construct a more permanent, more expensive facility. The costs of a temporary facility kept increasing, making the permanent facility look better on paper, said Mari Garza-Bird, a vice president with CDM Smith, the CCSD’s consultant managing the project.

Meanwhile, the clock is ticking. In June, the county issued the CCSD an emergency coastal development permit, which allows an exemption from normal review and approval processes. Construction must be completed by Nov. 15 when the permit expires, after which normal requirements kick in for a standard permit, bringing compliance requirements from the county’s Local Coastal Program and a slew of governmental agencies. With the regulative gauntlet rapidly approaching, the CCSD has acted quickly to meet the emergency permit deadline.

On Aug. 4, the CCSD approved an $8.8 million loan to fund the Emergency Water Supply’s construction. The loan will come from the Arizona-based Western Alliance Bancorporation, a hedge fund, costing a total $13.4 million once interest is included. The process was so rushed that the loan agreement wasn’t public until the morning of the meeting, and after approving the loan 4-1, CCSD directors took a break to sign the document.

Residents at the meeting told the CCSD leaders that instead of taking out a loan with a hedge fund, they ought to consider more common and accepted lenders—namely the state’s low-interest revolving fund for water supply projects. CCSD officials, however, said that they only had the one option, as all others would have taken too much time
to process.

Not all CCSD directors were comfortable with approving the loan. Director Amanda Rice was the single dissenting vote, raising concerns that the hasty approval and financing were all for a project that likely won’t deliver water until some time next spring.

“If this isn’t going to provide us water before what is essentially the rainy season—fingers crossed—I’m a little concerned that we’re pushing forward too fast,” Rice said. “I really don’t want to be an obstacle here, but I do want some answers before I’m comfortable encumbering the community with a huge amount of debt.”

But, like the loan, those behind the project say the emergency permit’s time constraints leave little options.

“It is the only solution that can be constructed and permitted in this time frame before the district runs out of water,” Garza-Bird told New Times.

The project hasn’t drawn questions and comments solely from Cambria residents. The proposed EWS project and its timeline have received scrutiny from a number of public agencies, namely the California Coastal Commission, the California Department of Parks and Recreation, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board. All have some jurisdiction over the regular permitting process, and may place requirements that could throw a wrench in the project once the emergency permit evaporates in November.

In a July 22 letter to the CCSD, representatives of the Coastal Commission wrote: “When the CCSD applied earlier this year to the county of San Luis Obispo for an emergency coastal development permit to address the current severe drought situation, we advised you to use that emergency permit process to implement a short-term and immediate solution rather than construct long-term major infrastructure that raises significant LCP and Coast Act policy concerns. Additional data, evaluation, and discussion among all the resource agencies holding authority over the project is required before a long-term project is designed, constructed, and operated. Nevertheless, in June 2014, the CCSD applied for, and the county issued, an emergency CDP for the project.”

The letter went on to identify questions about the project’s possible negative impacts to coastal wetlands, endangered species, and coastal recreation, all concerns echoed
by other agencies.

On Aug. 27, the CCSD went to the Coastal Commission’s Santa Cruz offices for an all-day, multi-agency meeting, at which, according to some participants, discussions were productive, and some doubts were relieved. As of press time, neither CCSD General Manager Jerry Gruber nor California Coastal Commission Environmental Scientist Tom Luster were available for comment, but Luster did pass on a few emails that indicated plans to address future compliance issues.

Rice told New Times that even though she still has questions and concerns about the project’s pace and scope, as a CCSD director she has a duty to support the board’s decision as they progress.

“We’re moving forward, and now I see our job as the board is to make sure that we have accountability for all the money spent,” Rice said.

“If it doesn’t rain this winter, we will absolutely need this project.”


Contact staff writer Jono Kinkade at

-- Melody DeMeritt - former city council member, Morro Bay


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